There are a lot of loud noises in the primate building at the zoo, few of which actually emanate from the animals. I often hear the loud thumps of people banging on glass, infants screaming or crying, and people yelling “Look here!” or “Ew!” to one another.
Today I heard the loud thud of banging on glass, but it was followed by startled humans. One of the gorillas was the source of this noise and caused a group of people to jump and erupt into a flurry of alarm calls. They then proceeded to retell the story of what had happened among themselves, and I could hear them explain that the gorilla had first made a chest beating display before pounding on the glass.
After their initial shock, the people changed to laughing. Still staring at the perturbed gorilla, they were safely behind glass and could mock, laugh, and completely ignore his communication. To me, this became a poignant example of what humans are often internalizing when at the zoo — a message that humans can do what they wish to other animals (/nature) with no repercussions. We can dominate nature because we are above nature. And then we can stand back and laugh.
What kind of message about gorillas did this group of people receive? Certainly they would have a much different impression of gorillas if they had witnessed this type of display in the wild. In fact, they probably would be quite thankful for their lives (or for being at a safe distance quietly observing the display) instead of laughing. But also, they did not really learn all that much about gorillas and their behavior through this experience – especially not about their fascinating social lives and how gentle they can be with one another.
Maybe they’ll go and learn more about gorillas later because of this experience, but probably not. I think it’s more likely that they’ll go tell their friends about the “crazy gorilla” at the zoo and perpetuate the myth that gorillas are vicious and always aggressive. I’m pretty confident that they won’t spend much time thinking about the ways in which they bothered him, or what it would be like to be confined to a space where loud people are continually filtering past all day trying to get your attention.
The broader concern of this small incident, though, is that the zoo is perpetuating an even more deeply ingrained myth than the one that gorillas are always aggressive. It is a myth that may cause us our demise. The myth is that we are superior to all of nature, that we can control and dominate it, and that we can stand back and laugh when it tries to warn us of our inappropriate behavior (global warming? ha!).
We would be wise to start communicating better with nature. There will not always be a thick sheet of glass there to protect us from our stupidity.
We might start by going outside to develop a real connection with animals and nature. Yes, much of the free space for us to do that is gone and many people argue that we must go to zoos to see wild creatures, but somehow animals are still all around us. Pay attention to them, respect them, and work toward a future where we can all coexist. Nature has been speaking to us. Will we start to listen in time?